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Fayette County defendant loses appeal of sentence in shooting, stabbing of bartender

| Thursday, July 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A Fayette County woman serving up to 24 years in prison in the shooting and stabbing death of a bartender has lost a federal appeal seeking her release.

Catherine Marie Hamborsky, 48, of Upper Tyrone, was convicted in 2006 of third-degree murder, abuse of a corpse and two counts of arson in the death of Thomas Lesniak. Lesniak's severely burned body was discovered inside his brother's tavern, J.J.'s Restaurant and Bar, in Upper Tyrone, the morning of Jan. 4, 2005.

Hamborsky, who witnesses said was at the bar the previous evening playing video poker and was observed arguing with Lesniak over money, initially denied involvement. She did not acknowledge stabbing and shooting Lesniak until police learned a gas can found at the scene belonged to her.

Jurors rejected Hamborsky's claim she acted in self-defense when the victim allegedly attacked her and demanded sexual favors. She was sentenced to 12 to 24 years in prison, but she has since filed several failed appeals in which she argued her trial attorney, Sam Davis of Uniontown, provided ineffective counsel by failing to hire a forensic pathologist to testify on her behalf.

On Tuesday, a federal judge denied the most recent appeal in which Hamborsky sought to be released.

Through her attorney, Stanton Levenson of Pittsburgh, she argued jurors might not have handed down a conviction if forensic pathologist Dr. David Fowler been called to testify.

Fowler would have testified that Lesniak, who had a heart condition, died before he was shot of sudden cardiac failure associated with cocaine and alcohol intoxication, according to her appeal.

That contradicts the prosecution's expert, forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, who found that complications from the five gunshot wounds, combined with the pre-existing heart condition, caused Lesniak's death.

In handing down the denial, Chief United States Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan said Davis was not ineffective because his decision to forgo use of an expert witness was part of his trial strategy.

Davis had a number of obstacles to overcome, the judge said, including Hamborsky's confession, the well-known Wecht's “star power” status with jurors, a belief that another expert would fail to provide new information and lack of money to hire an expert.

“Trial counsel's performance was not unreasonable,” Pupo Lenihan wrote.

In an earlier response to the appeal, Fayette County Assistant District Attorney Anthony Iannamorelli said any assertion at trial that Lesniak died before he was shot would not have helped Hamborsky.

He said Hamborsky testified she shot Lesniak as he attacked her.

“To argue that the victim was dead would mean he would be unable to continue his alleged pursuit and attack of the victim and completely undercut the ... defense of self-defense as a trial strategy,” Iannamorelli said.

Hamborsky is lodged at the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs in Crawford County.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166.

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